The absorbing tale of a Jazz Age grifter named Edgar Laplante, who posed as an American Indian and gained extravagant wealth and worldwide fame.
Chronicling the life and entertaining yet fraudulent times of Laplante, aka Chief White Elk, Willetts (Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms: The Spyhunter, the Fashion Designer, and the Man from Moscow, 2015, etc.), in his American debut, brings fresh significance to the ancient profession of the con artist. A vaudeville performer who began his career in traveling medicine shows, by 1917 Laplante was a small-time grifter moving from city to city, posing as Onondagan marathon runner Tom Longboat. As his confidence developed, his game grew, and he effectively dazzled his marks and bled them until his cover was blown. With the law always one step behind, he finally settled into his boldest reinvention: Chief White Elk, revered leader of the Cherokee nation, wounded war veteran, sports celebrity, vaudeville performer, war bonds promoter, etc. Dressed in buckskins and headdress, Laplante was the mainstay of local society pages, and his herculean feats of charisma and charm became unparalleled as his cons grew bigger and more dangerous. After several years, having run the course of his scam in North America, he made his way to Europe, where he began hosting fundraisers for American Indian orphans. By 1924, he was living in the French Riviera, where he met a wealthy Austrian countess from whom he bilked massive sums of money. Touring through Italy at her expense, Laplante hit his ultimate stride when he fell into the graces of the Mussolini regime, which brought him renown across Europe and around the globe. Then, just as he reached his career pinnacle, his fabrications crumbled, resulting in a stint in an Italian prison. Using the “surprisingly extensive paper trail” that Laplante “left behind,” Willetts weaves a fast-paced, intriguing tale.
With the rise of identity theft, celebrity worship, and manipulative social media, this sprightly story of a legendary con artist’s outrageous successes becomes a cautionary tale for the digital age.